INDIANAPOLIS You don”t know what you”ve got till it”s nearly gone. This week at the Big Ten Tournament, the Michigan basketball team knowing that its season was slipping away, grasped at the last few grains of sand before it slid through the hourglass. With a sense of urgency and an emotion that has been all but absent from the team this season, the Wolverines put together what was probably their most impressive loss, a 75-68 defeat at the hands of Ohio State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
Ohio State went up 15-2 to start the game, but could not build on that lead despite maintaining offensive pressure.
“We could have had an opportunity to be up by double figures at the end of the half,” Ohio State coach Jim O”Brien said. “But they (Michigan) hung in there.”
Coming out of the lockerroom after halftime, Michigan took control of a game that it trailed at that point, 42-35. Junior forward LaVell Blanchard led his team for the second straight game with 13 second-half points and 24 for the game. Over a stretch midway through the second half, Blanchard scored 11 of Michigan”s 17 points as the 10th-seeded Wolverines hung with the conference”s co-champions, eventually working the Ohio State lead down to one point.
After a dunk by Ohio State”s Velimir Radinovic brought the Conseco Fieldhouse crowd (most of who wore scarlet rather than maize and blue) to its feet and another Radinovic field goal increased the Ohio State lead back up to five, Michigan junior guard Gavin Groninger knocked down a 3-pointer to keep Michigan within two with under three minutes to play.
Following the Groninger 3-pointer, Ohio State guard Brian Brown and Blanchard traded field goals. With less than 40 seconds to play, Michigan could see the potential for an upset, and coach Tommy Amaker”s bench players put their arms around each other in anticipation. But following a 30-second timeout called by Ohio State coach Jim O”Brien, Ohio State forward Boban Savovic found Brown posting up Michigan senior guard Leon Jones in the paint. Brown took the pass, put the ball on the floor and pivoted for the short turnaround jumper that would prove to be the nail in a coffin that wanted so badly to remain open.
Groninger attempted two more 3-pointers, neither of which fell.
“Give (Ohio State) credit for handling the pressure and answering us when they needed to,” Amaker said. “That basket by Brian Brown was somewhat of a dagger.”
Against Ohio State, Amaker put the same five players on the court that had played 35 minutes for him the previous day against Northwestern. Unfortunately for Michigan, they could not stay out there long enough. Jones picked up early fouls, forcing fifth-year senior and former walk-on Mike Gotfredson to play the majority of the game at point guard. Freshman Dommanic Ingerson, who played perhaps his smartest game of the season against Northwestern, lost his temper as Amaker brought him out of the game in the second half. He never returned.
Jones, who finally fouled out with 12 seconds remaining in his final game, left the court with tears in his eyes. The tri-captain”s minutes on the bench against the Buckeyes were of no help to his team.
“His emotion on the floor and his toughness and hard-noseness is what affected us the most,” Senior Chris Young said of his teammate. “(Gotfredson) did a great job of getting us into sets, but Leon brings that emotion we need on the floor.”
Michigan wanted so badly to prove itself in this weekend”s tournament. It was an opportunity for the Wolverines to achieve where they did not all season long. Despite the loss, the Wolverines particularly the outgoing seniors couldn”t have been more proud of the effort put forth.
Young believes, as does Amaker, that the effort and energy displayed by Michigan at the Big Ten Tournament will carry over to benefit the team next season.
“The only emotion that comes to mind right now is pride,” Young said. “I look on the faces of the guys in here it hurts every one of us. Every one of us is crying, every one of us is tearing however they show their emotion. And I know that is what is going to drive them this summer and next fall that feeling, that hurt.”
Amaker was also optimistic for the future, and proud of his team when asked to evaluate his inaugural season at the helm of the program.
“You learn about what it means to be a part of something that hasn”t gone as well,” Amaker said. “(The senior”s) willingness to do whatever it takes for the group: When they do that every day, there”s a great lesson for everyone. It”s been a great pleasure to coach these kids.
“It”s never easy when you”re not winning, but if you”re going to judge everything by Ws and Ls, by a score, then I”m in the wrong business. And I think I”m in the right business.”